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10 - Masterpiece
9 - Great
8 - Very good
7 - Good
6 - Watchable if you like the genre
5 - Mediocre, don't bother
4 - Bad
3 - Terrible
2 - Garbage
1 - Genuinely offensive
Note: my reviews often contain some mild spoilers, as I believe it's hard to discuss a movie meaningfully without ANY mention of plot details, character arcs or even how a scene could have worked better differently - otherwise, it becomes a string of "I liked / I didn't like". I will NOT, however, give away the ending or major twists without further warnings during the review.
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A (mostly) faithful adaptation of Dino Buzzati's children book (a personal favorite of my childhood) about a bear king leading his people to war to rescue his kidnapped son. The bears face dangerous creatures and the army of a cruel duke, eventually settling down among humans before new conflicts arise.
Visuals are lavish, with stark, vibrant colors and great composition; they feel inspired by the works of painter Giorgio de Chirico, with his dreamlike cities and landscapes. While the first act (framing device aside) is almost identical to the book, the second part introduces a few significant differences. Still, this beautiful animated movie remains, overall, close to the spirit of Buzzati's novel.
Recommended age: 6 years onwards. There are a couple of monsters, some brief battle scenes, a few bloodless deaths, a bittersweet ending; no profanities or sexuality.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Why the Terminator series is done
I'll be honest, Dark Fate is more mediocre than unwatchable, probably the best Terminator since T2... yeah, I know, the bar is so low, it's like limbo dancing at this point. This feels similar to The Force Awakens: in itself a slick, decent movie, but I've already watched the much better original, so thanks but no thanks.
Positives? Mackenzie Davis, for whom I've had a hopeless crush since seeing her as a cute NASA geek in The Martian (and then again in Blade Runner 2049), plays a relatable, compelling character, with an intriguing mix of power and vulnerability. There are also a couple of neat set-pieces, especially in the first half, before everything becomes over-the-top tiresome.
Linda Hamilton and Arnold show up for fanservice. It's kind of nice to see them both back with significant roles but, as is typical of fanservice, it's like gorging on too much chocolate: tastes good at first, but then come nausea and a vague feeling of shame.
My main point is, the Terminator series is now hopeless, as the last movies, especially Genisys, have poisoned the well. The continuity is a mess and keeps being rebooted, so everything is pointless: no development can feel meaningful. Show of hands: who would be particularly surprised if the next Terminator movie was once again about John Connor leading the Resistance in another alternate continuity? No one? Thought so.
Also, the new villain being so talkative was possibly the single stupidest idea in the whole project. You know why Arnold in T1 and Robert Patrick in T2 were so terrifying? Because they shut up! They said very little and, the few times they spoke, it always felt like something they did for pure necessity (probing for informations, setting up a trap) but was fundamentally alien to their nature.
This Rev-9 tries to talk its antagonists out of fighting him! Can anyone picture the T-1000 reasoning with its targets? The great Robert Patrick studied and imitated the body language of birds of prey to look creepier and inhuman, and the new bad guy wants to chat. Give me a break.
King Kong (2005)
When PJ still had it
Looking back at King Kong after the disappointment of the Hobbit trilogy, this feels like an intermediate phase for director Peter Jackson. This movie is bloated and self-indulgent, no doubt, with worrying red flags of what was coming (see the interminable dinosaur stampede, a prelude to the CGI set-pieces excesses of The Hobbit)... but overall it worked.
For example, see how more deftly Jackson handles the numerous characters here; none is deep but all are quickly, effectively sketched; the emotional moments resonate.
The film owes much to Naomi Watts, who is adorable and charismatic (not to mention gorgeous) as Ann Darrow, and to Andy Serkis, who memorably portrayed Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and provides here another effective motion-captured turn as the titular ape.
I enjoyed season one and I applaud the producers for choosing the anthology format, so each new season has a fictional horror story in a different historical setting. I believe it's the right call.
The setting is interesting; instead of a 19th century arctic expedition we have Japanese-American internment camps during World War 2; instead of monsters, we have ghosts. That said, I wasn't crazy about this first episode. Production values are once again solid but I have issues with the pacing, which felt too slow, and with the writing.
You know when I started to be worried ? When a character is walking on a street in broad daylight and the ghostly force/curse attacks him with gruesome results, as bystanders watch in horrified impotence. If there are no rules or limits to what the supernatural threat can do and anything goes, far from being creepier, it becomes a recipe for tedium.
Let's hope this gets better in the next episodes.
The I-Land: Brave New World (2019)
Bargain bin Lost
Watched the pilot and it was less than enticing. With a group of strangers waking up on a mysterious island, this feels like a retread of Lost.
Now, Lost certainly had flaws: padding, flashbacks which eventually became repetitive, writers constantly baiting the audience with mysteries which were seldom given satisfying closure (if any closure at all)... still, Lost was smartly crafted and addictive, with memorable characters, neat moments, the feeling of a compelling mythology... which turned out to be kind of a mess, but at least the illusion was effective for a while!
This pilot doesn't have anything special. Characters are mostly flat and interchangeable; their immediate conflict feels incredibly contrived. As much as I can appreciate lovely protagonist Natalie Martinez running around in a tight tank top, I'm afraid I really need something more than that, show. You know, stuff like characterization and non-terrible dialogues.
The writers are clearly going with a Lost-like "mystery box" (who are these people? who put them there? why are they amnesiac? etc.) but, where Lost had a giant monster and polar bears, this has... a shark attack.
Which, yeah, that could be a terrific moment (Jaws is one of my favorite movies of all time), but if you are opting for the J.J. Abrams / Damon Lindelof format of enthralling viewers with weird mysteries, an average shark attack as the big set-piece feels a little mundane and underwhelming. And still, the shark attack was the highlight of the pilot.
Not impressed so far.
The great betrayal
I have a great respect for David Fincher's craft as a director; even if I'm not a fan of most of his movies - with some exceptions, for example I loved Zodiac - I recognize their quality.
However, I hate Alien 3. Fincher is mostly blameless, I guess, although his cinematic debut here doesn't show many traces of the superior visual control he has become famous for.
No, the real culprit is the screenplay. Characters are uniformly one-note and unlikable (with the exception of Charles Dance's doctor), so different from the relatable space truckers of Alien and the well-sketched marines of Aliens. The troubled production history rears its ugly head here, with many rewrites and rejected ideas - the Xenomorphs were initially supposed to come to Earth, then to a forest planet inhabited by monks.
Also, killing off Newt and Hicks like that, before the film even starts, feels like intentionally trolling the fans of Aliens (it certainly offended James Cameron, who was very vocal about it at the time). While I like Hicks a lot, he was expendable; Newt wasn't. Her relationship with Ripley was the emotional core of Aliens. Her lazy demise retroactively makes the climax of Cameron's classic, where Ripley goes back for her, quite pointless.
Now, if they absolutely wanted a dark sequel where Newt died, it could have been done - but it should have felt like a central moment, in a situation where the protagonist had some agency. Imagine a climax where, say, Ripley has to choose between saving her "daughter" or stopping some corporate goons from bringing the Xenomorphs to Earth. That would have been gut-wrenching.
Instead, we get this limp mess. Once Newt and Hicks are dead and we find out Ripley is incubating a xenomorph and is therefore doomed, all the characters we like are gone; tension and audience investment whoosh out of the picture like air out of a punctured balloon.
The series never recovered.
Jurassic Park III (2001)
A competent failure
As an action/adventure film, Jurassic Park III achieves basic competence, which is not surprising since it was directed by reliable veteran Joe Johnston. As a sequel of one of the best blockbusters of all time, the first Jurassic Park, it's depressingly mediocre. Gone are the awe and terror of the original; dinosaurs are just other movie monsters chasing the heroes - and this starts about a minute after they land on the island. So long for build-up.
There are some small pleasures. The always charismatic Sam Neill is back as Alan Grant... although the movie immediately pulls an Alien 3 on him by revealing that he and Ellie split up and Alan is a miserable loner. I guess it does not undermine his character arc in Jurassic Park from aloof child-hater to caring protector (one can certainly grow as a person even if he ends up alone), but still.
Choosing the Spinosaurus as the main threat was an interesting idea, as it's a cool creature and not as overused as the T-Rex and the Raptors have become. And I really like the moment with the Pterodactyl hobbling out of the fog: it's a striking, memorable image, which is rare for a Jurassic Park sequel.
And that's it. Character interactions are perfunctory, most set-pieces nowhere close those of the previous films (I kind of hated The Lost World but it did have a few great action scenes), the premise is stupid (with the little kid surviving on his own on a dinosaur-infested island for weeks) and the ending is a complete deus-ex-machina.
(Incidentally, you can't use the smell of T-Rex urine to chase away other dinosaurs, because dinosaurs didn't have urine like mammals: they emitted it mixed with feces from a cloaca, like birds and reptiles. But that's the least of the film's problems).
Much like Cyanide, Spiders is an ambitious developer which usually bites off more than it can chew. With GreedFall, however, Spiders finally delivered. A cocktail between BioWare games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Risen series, this action-RPG instantly captured my attention for its neat setting, inspired by 17th century colonialism.
After a prologue/tutorial, the young protagonist (customizable in gender and appearance) leaves his baroque city to explore an exotic island colonized by his countrymen and other factions, seeking for the cure to a deadly plague.
The game is a bit rough around the edges but there many things to like: solid writing, serviceable gameplay, a semi-open world with some pretty locations, interesting and likable party members, factions conflicting with each other, a character system with different skills and talents (magic, firearms, crafting...), quests with multiple solutions (combat, stealth, disguise, diplomacy...) and moral choices.
There are flaws. While acting is fine, lip-syncing is off. Colonies are often populated by scores of identical NPCs who are invulnerable and don't react to attacks. There isn't a theft system, so you can take everything you find without repercussions. The three main colonies look nice and distinctive but there isn't a lot to do in them apart from a few places of interest; ironically, wilderness maps are more eventful. Combat is competent but unbalanced in favor of ranged attacks (magic and guns), while melee is much harder. It is entirely possible to create hybrid classes though.
Overall, this was a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed the characters and the setting and appreciated that quests often have a narrative twist to make them more interesting and unpredictable.
A Season One retrospective
As a Star Wars fan who was disappointed by the prequels, the first season of this show was a pleasant surprise, not great but much better than its dreadful pilot movie.
Still kid-friendly (I'd say fine from the age of 8) before darker later seasons, it follows the galactic conflict between Republican and Separatist forces. The whole series bridges the gap between Attack of the Clones (which I loathed) and Revenge of the Sith (which was flawed but I maintain had its moments).
Anakin is far more likable here than in the live-action films - finally the "best pilot, cunning warrior, good friend" he never managed to be in the prequels. However, this season is at its best when it follows not Skywalker and his apprentice Ahsoka (the plucky sidekick here still too obviously the young watchers' avatar) and not even Obi-Wan or Padme, but rather characters the movies either underserved (Yoda, Mace Windu) or treated like extras (Plo Koon, Kit Fisto and other Jedi Masters).
While I've never liked the narrative choice made in Episode II - I still believe the clones of the "Clone Wars" should have been the bad guys and the good guys just ordinary soldiers later forcibly drafted into the Empire, also the fact they are all Fett's clones feels like bad fanfiction - the show made the most out of this dubious premise in terms of characterization of the troopers.
Incidentally, I could have done without the brief newscast introduction to each episode and its overly excited narrator. It feels like a satire, something out of Starship Troopers. It's tonally weird.
Favorite episodes of the season: Rising Malevolence, Cloak of Darkness, Lair of Grievous, Trespass.
Of plagues and revolutions
I like Wadjet Eye games: they scratch my itch for old-school point-and-click adventures with pleasant retro graphics, competent writing and puzzles which are neither frustrating (no pixel-hunting, for example) nor so easy they become pointless... although the trend seems to be heading towards easier solutions: compare the Blackwell series to Shardlight, Unavowed and Lamplight City. While overall I enjoyed all these games, I really hope they don't go further in that direction.
Shardlight has an interesting setting, probably inspired by Dishonored: a post-apocalyptic society with a Neo-Victorian style and a strong class division. The masses live in poverty and are plagued by a deadly epidemic, the Green Lung; the ruling Aristocracy hoards the cure and distributes lottery tickets with the chance to win a treatment to those who volunteer for dangerous jobs. Add to this a death cult focused on a mysterious masked figure, the Reaper, and you have a compelling premise.
Shardlight starts strongly and never lost my interest, but the last act is rushed. For example, an evasion from a supposedly inescapable prison feels anticlimactic, and so does the revolution which has been building up for the whole game.
I don't particularly like adventures which punish you at every turn, but in this case it would have been nice to allow the player to make mistakes and plan poorly, with negative results. There are three different epilogues depending on a choice at the last moment which isn't influenced by previous in-game decisions. Frankly, some things about the endings don't make a lot of sense, but I won't go into that as we would enter spoiler territory.
Voice acting is excellent, in particular scavenger Amy (Shelly Shenoy), who is the protagonist, and main villain Tiberius (Abe Goldfarb, who played Joey in the Blackwell series).
Blackwell Epiphany (2014)
The Blackwell Retrospective
This adventure games series by Wadjet Eye is a treat for fans of LucasArts and Sierra classics. The narrative follows Rosangela Blackwell, an introverted young woman who inherits from her aunt the powers of a medium. With the help of her sarcastic spirit guide Joey, Rosangela helps several ghosts move on by investigating their deaths.
Characters are likable and well-acted; I appreciate that Rosa (and Lauren in Unbound) are flawed, somewhat unusual protagonists; their interactions with Joey are enjoyable.
- The Blackwell Legacy is the shortest and simplest, with a pleasantly straightforward plot, even if in terms of gameplay the series was still learning the ropes. 7,5/10
- Blackwell Unbound, prequel to Legacy, follows Rosa's aunt Lauren and is the first Blackwell game which allows to switch between the main character (who can interact with living people and the physical world) and Joey (who can talk to ghosts and access restricted areas). My personal favorite, with a lovely bittersweet tone. 8,5/10
- The Blackwell Convergence is fine but has an irritating gameplay mechanic which forces the player to go back and forth from Rosa's home to check the computer after unlocking nearly every new piece of evidence. This was improved in the following games. 7,5/10
- The Blackwell Deception is my second favorite and has some of the most challenging puzzles. In general, in terms of difficulty the series was a reasonable compromise between old-school classics and new adventure games: neither frustrating nor tediously easy. 8/10
- The Blackwell Epiphany is the longest and darkest. It could have been my favorite after Unbound but I had issues with the last act. Without going into spoilers, I liked that the series had a small scale with "personal" stories; raising the stakes with a more "epic" conclusion didn't fit tonally. 7,5/10
Overall, the series was a pleasant surprise, with solid writing, memorable characters, clever puzzles.
Lamplight City (2018)
The Steampunk Detective
Inspired by LucasArts and Sierra classics, Lamplight City is a point-and-click adventure game where you play as a detective investigating five different cases in an alternate history 19th century American city, reminiscent of Victorian London but with a few steampunk twists.
Narrative and characters are strong; the game had me intrigued and I was always curious to see what was going to happen. The various cases are sufficiently varied. Visuals are lovely in a retro kind of way, voice acting excellent.
My main issue is how gameplay has been excessively streamlined. Gone are the inventory and the different interactions of, say, Monkey Island or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis: clicking on each hotspot automatically delivers the "correct" action to progress the plot. Problem-solving feels simplistic: in many situations you can get stuck only if you fail to click on everything. It reminds me of Unavowed, another recent adventure with likable characters but easy puzzles: Lamplight City takes the simplification even further.
There are also examples of smart design: for example, you can't initiate conversations with characters who have nothing new to say or visit locations with nothing more to do. THAT is good streamlining, as it reduces pointless backtracking and busywork for the players. I also liked that mindlessly exhausting every option in dialogue trees isn't always a good idea: if you anger a witness, you may be locked out of vital clues.
Interestingly, cases have "bad" or sub-optimal outcomes: you can accuse the wrong suspect, or maybe find the right one but, say, fail to discover where he is hiding; in general, getting the "best"ending for each case (as opposed to just finding the right culprit) involves the only truly challenging puzzles in the game.
Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
Lucas Pope strikes again
After the gem that was Papers, Please, Lucas Pope crafts another puzzle adventure with unusual setting and premise, delivering an original, engrossing experience.
You play as an insurance investigator exploring the ghost ship Obra Dinn, whose crew and passengers are either dead or missing. Your task is to discover what happened, thanks to a peculiar device which allows you to relive the last moments of each body you find. Experiencing those memories and comparing them to the informations you gather or deduct, you need to identify every character and find out his fate (who was murdered, how and by whom, who died of natural causes...), unraveling the tragic mystery of the Obra Dinn.
The retro graphics may be off-putting to some players but they have an elegant simplicity and, like in Papers, Please, feel perfectly functional to the story. Overall, the experience was so compelling that never once I was bothered by the fact that this looks like a game I could have played on my old Commodore 64. Voice acting and sound design are excellent.
The result is a multiple murder mystery with a supernatural twist, Master & Commander meets Agatha Christie via the X-Files. If you have seen the Ridley Scott-produced series The Terror, that's the kind of atmosphere Return of the Obra Dinn goes for.
Papers, Please (2013)
The only fun I've ever had with bureaucracy
The genius of Lucas Pope's Papers, Please is how it takes the most boring thing in the universe - bureaucratic paperwork - and turns it into a compelling experience.
You play as an immigration officer in a fictional totalitarian state: your job is to check the documents of immigrants, spotting invalid, falsified or incomplete data. The more immigrants you process, the more you get paid - and you need money badly to take care of yourself and your family, or you lose. However, if you admit someone whose paperwork was flawed - or reject people whose documents were fine - you lose money. It becomes a delicate balance between being quick and precise.
As the game goes on, things get harder. An epidemy forces you to check vaccinations. People start hiding goods and guns, so you have to perform perquisitions. Fugitives appear on the news and you may have to spot them between the applicants at your checkpoint.
If Papers, Please had stopped here it would have been a clever puzzle game in an unusual setting, but it goes beyond that. This game excels at environmental storytelling and moral choices, bombarding you with difficult decisions. Do you separate a couple because the wife's passport has expired? Do you help a fellow guard reunite with a loved one? When a smug superior orders you to let a friend with lacking paperwork pass, do you comply? When a rebel group contacts you, do you cooperate, report to the authority or just play blind and deaf? When you get a bonus for each arrest, do you call the guards for people you may simply reject?
Brilliant. Recommended to anyone interested in a truly unique gaming experience.
The Blue Door (2017)
This is an effective, minimalist horror short: one location, a few characters, zero exposition... and yet it's scarier than most mainstream releases. Director Paul Taylor does a masterful job and Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones' Yara Greyjoy) is convincingly terrified in the lead role.
Now I read Hollywood has bought the rights and wants to make a full feature film. What's the point? This is a very basic premise, perfect for a nine minutes short. It's like stretching a single funny joke into a two hours comedy. The here unnamed protagonist doesn't need a sad backstory, a sardonic best friend, a jerky ex- boyfriend or a hunky neighbour love interest. She doesn't need to go browse on the internet for old Romanian legends about blue doors.
This is perfect as it is, a scary horror short which doesn't overstay its welcome. Kudos to the poster, a clear homage to the works of the great Saul Bass.
These are not robot questions
The premise of this sci-fi romance/drama had potential. During an interstellar voyage, passenger Jim (Chris Pratt) wakes up from hibernation 90 years before the arrival due to a system error. He is the only person awake on the whole gigantic spaceship apart from a robot bartender (Michael Sheen), while all other thousands human passengers are still asleep in hibernation. After useless attempts to repair his pod, Jim briefly enjoys the luxurious life aboard before loneliness nearly drives him suicidal.
At this point he decides to awake an attractive female passenger, Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), to have some company in his hopeless situation...
I've heard people complain that the premise is creepy, but that's the whole point. If you take away Jim's moral dilemma and selfish choice, and have both passengers awake due to random circustances, you get the most boring movie imaginable (and it's not as if Passengers right now is incredibly lively and exciting).
MAJOR SPOILERS Sadly, Passengers chickens out in a last act where the two leads cooperate to save the ship, the morally dubious Jim becomes flat-out heroic, Aurora forgives him and the two live together their remaining years in a bittersweet conclusion which is far too sweet and not nearly bitter enough. The premise was screaming for something darker, like Aurora going to sleep on the repaired pod and Jim resigning himself to loneliness; even better, Jim dies and a half-crazed Aurora, now alone on the ship for months in the same situation as Jim was, starts eyeing the pod with a handsome male passenger, implying the cycle of selfishness and deception may soon start again. END SPOILERS
Production values are solid; the leads are fine and so are Sheen and Laurence Fishburne in the only relevant supporting roles. Pity about that last act.
The Silence (2019)
Stanley Tucci versus dwarf pterodactyls
The cinematic equivalent of tofu, this movie is bearable but bland; a bargain bin version of A Quiet Place with another family hunted by noise-sensitive monsters and a deaf daughter whose knowledge of sign language proves useful.
I really liked A Quiet Place, plot holes and all. The first half was a masterclass in building up suspense and dread, with phenomenal tension and great use of sound. The Silence, while not amateurish, falls really short by comparison; it's a lot more "Oh no here come the beasties! Phew phew! Run!".
This is a pet peeve of mine but I'm really tired of post-apocalyptic/disaster/zombie stories with a group of evil survivors replacing the monsters as the antagonists (see The Walking Dead). I understand actors are cheaper than CGI but still, I think I've had enough of "Bwah-ha-ha!" evil cults/gangs for a lifetime.
Thankfully, the evil survivors in The Silence do *not* actually go "Bwah-ha-ha!", mostly because they have cut off their own tongues. There is a truly hilarious moment where their leader sneers at the protagonists after they have refused to join his cult (a scene Tucci plays as if he is hurrying away from a smelly hobo asking for money). Tucci and his daughter leave the bad guy standing alone in the middle of the road and he opens his mouth with a disgusted grimace, like a cat who has smelled something bad. It's meant to show us he is nuts and has removed his own tongue, but I was howling with laughter.
Another funny bit comes in the middle of an otherwise decent set-piece, as Tucci's family is crawling through a tunnel and the creatures have found them. Tucci turns on a woodchipper and all the beasts just dive into it, mangled into sprays of blood within a few seconds. And these things brought mankind to the verge of extinction? Seriously?
Overall, not terrible but mediocre. If you missed A Quiet Place, watch that one instead.
Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (2019)
Stick them with the lousy end
The show has been badly written since several years, with incoherent characterization (Jaime, Stannis...), nonsensical plotting (the Sansa-Bolton marriage, Sansa keeping silent about the Vale army, the wight hunt...) and juvenile dialogue (if I had ten dollars for every cock joke, I wouldn't need go to work tomorrow).
Still, Game of Thrones has managed to fool most viewers and critics... until this last season. Strong production values, fine performances and an excellent score by Ramin Djawadi cannot save this rushed mess. I would actually be more forgiving if the show had a meager budget, mediocre visuals and workmanlike direction but solid scripts. Writing is the main pillar, everything else is just a (welcome) commodity.
To be fair, this finale was marginally better than the trainwrecks of the last three episodes. It still wasn't good. It's like being mugged by a knife-wielding thug in a dark alley, then before leaving he just punches you in the face instead of stabbing you. Could have been even worse, but still, you are not going to remember the encounter fondly.
Many fans are furious for Evil Daenerys, and I can understand that - it didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but it was simply too much, too fast for a character who had consistently been depicted as ruthless towards her enemies but protective towards innocents. Honestly, Jon taking down Mad Queen Dany isn't even my main issue. There is so much nonsense, such a lack of gravitas and intelligence, it feels like the world's most expensive fanfiction.
Incidentally, even if he ends up on the Iron Throne, fans of Bran should be even more outraged: the character has been in these last years first a plot device to show flashbacks and then an emotionless robot who solves conflicts with his omniscience (Littlefinger's trial) and yet is strangely useless against the main threats (Cersei, the White Walkers). Now he gets to be king because he has "the best story"... No he doesn't! Certainly not in the show.
What a pity this once fine and acclaimed show goes out with a miserable whimper. First World problems, I know, but still. George R. R. Martin, you are our only hope... ah, who am I kidding. Benioff and Weiss will have butchered Star Wars before Martin finishes The Winds of Winter.
Game of Thrones: The Bells (2019)
The emperor on the Iron Throne has no clothes
I'm suprised fans are turning against the show only now, as Game of Thrones has been a mess since season 5. In fact, I'd argue the worst parts from the last seasons (Dorne, the Sansa/Bolton marriage, Stannis' character assassination, Dany's nonsensical campaign against Cersei, the wight hunt...) were not worse than season 8.
Still, fans patiently waited for an epic ending to redeem the mistakes along the road. And what a rushed, embarrassing disaster they got. I don't even particularly like Daenerys, but the way she has been turned from heroic to villainous within a couple of episodes is shameful and makes Anakin's character arc in the Star Wars prequels seem worthy of Tolstoy by comparison.
The premise for her arc had potential but the execution was excruciatingly bad. While Dany has always been ruthless towards her enemies, she was consistently worried about protecting innocents. Deliberately torching King's Landing with her dragon once the battle is already won and murdering thousands of civilians is out of character.
There were plenty of ways to make her downfall more believable. For example, the battle goes on and Cersei still refuses to surrender, Dany sees her men dying, at this point (and not in the previous episode) Rhaegal is hit by a ballista and NOW an enraged Dany starts burning the city, involuntarily igniting the hidden stashes of wildfire and going beyond what she intended. There: same result with 100% less character assassination.
A line of defense I've read is: "Game of Thrones always went against common narrative tropes. This is the ultimate subversion". Yeah, but it's possible to subvert narrative tropes AND DO IT POORLY. Do I believe Dany will turn evil in the novels as well? At this point, probably... but context *matters*. Characterization *matters*. Martin is not infallible but, if and whenever he will release the last two books, I am sure Dany's arc will be more coherent than THIS.
Incidentally, why would Dany's madness be triggered by bells? This has not been foreshadowed in any way and I believe it's another scene they took from one character and gave to another for whom it makes no sense (like Qyburn getting Varys' A Dance with Dragons monologue). The bells thing will probably happen to Jon Connington in the novels.
The duel between the Clegane Brothers is fan-pandering nonsense: I personally believe it won't happen in the books - Gregor is no longer himself, so what's the point? Unlike the show, Martin never glamorizes revenge and in the books Sandor's arc has been one of healing and redemption.
Speaking of arcs, what happened to Jaime? Other parts of the show have been worse but he is the most disappointing, because for the first seasons he was spot on. But no, he loves Cersei and only Cersei - as he dies, he is essentially the same guy he was in the pilot eight years ago! Again, you CAN write a character with a failed redemption arc where he is unable to free himself from his past mistakes, but not like this.
As for Arya, I like the idea of Sandor inspiring her to give up on her toxic obsession with revenge, but it's a little late after she brutally murdered scores of people and baked some of them into pies. After years of smirking Arya the Killer, it's disconcerting to see her suddenly all shocked, vulnerable and doe-eyed, especially since she JUST FACED AND STOPPED A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.
Visuals, music, production values and acting are great as usual (and Emilia Clarke makes for a quite convincing paranoid mass murderer), but the result is just sad.
Game of Thrones: The Long Night (2019)
About "subverting expectations"
I have not commented on this show since I stopped enjoying it a few years ago, although I love the source material and the first three seasons. I'll break my silence now because this episode represents everything Game of Thrones has become since season 5: magnificent visuals and production values, splendid soundtrack, excellent performances (even Harington and Clarke, who were a bit shaky in the first couple of seasons, have grown solid), some effective moments (Theon's last stand, for example, is legitimately moving)... and disappointing writing.
Martin's books are not Crime and Punishment but at least he can write coherent characters and themes; the show, on the other hand, ignores themes (it got Martin's romanticism exactly wrong, turning it into garden-variety nihilism), keeps pushing the reset button on character arcs (see Jaime after season 3) and gleefully ignores any logic that gets in the way of the desired outcome (the absurd Sansa-Bolton marriage, Dany's hilariously suicidal campaign against Cersei, the grotesque "wight hunt"...).
With this episode, the whole point of the series - selfish people waste time and lives in petty dynastic wars while the apocalypse is coming - falls apart. Cersei becomes the ultimate villain to defeat; the Night King (a bad guy manufactured by the show to be the "face" of the White Walkers) goes down like a wimp halfway through the last season.
And is killed by Arya. Don't get me wrong, I love Arya. Well, LOVED her in the first seasons, as she has become increasingly smug in the last years.
But why Arya? She has no connection to the Night King and the White Walkers plot. The three meaningful choices were Jon (involved in the Wall storyline since season one), Bran (whose subplot has the stronger ties to the supernatural) or Dany (as a foil to the Night King, the "fire" to his "ice", the good dragon rider versus the evil one, the messianic figure versus the diabolic one). All the build-up about prophecies becomes pointless gibberish now.
Arya killing the Night King is like Han Solo killing the Emperor; like Legolas riding to Mount Doom and destroying the One Ring; like Ron Weasley defeating Voldemort; like Hicks confronting the Alien Queen. It's pleasing in a "Yay, a character we like kills the bad guy!" way, but it doesn't go beyond that. It's shallow, empty, meaningless. There needs to be a deeper connection between the villain and the hero who defeats him.
Well, Arya was chosen for two reasons. One, because of fanservice, as she is loved by both fans and writers. Two, to subvert expectations.
Let me get this straight about "subverting expectations" (see also The Last Jedi). Any hack can "subvert expectations". Just throw in stuff that comes out of nowhere (Varys kills the Night King! Euron joins the good guys!). What's difficult is doing it in a MEANINGFUL way which, in retrospect, makes sense in terms of plots, characterization, themes.
The Red Wedding was a brilliant subversion of expectations: everyone was expecting Robb to avenge Ned but he was betrayed and killed. Still, looking back at his storyline, all the signs were there; it was the tragic but somewhat logic outcome of his mistakes and misfortunes.
"Subverting expectations" just because you can is typical of schlock. If the books will ever come out, I am certain that, for better or for worse, the Others / White Walkers plotline will have a completely different outcome (and Cersei will be toast well before the Long Night).
Now I wonder how the good guys will dispose of Cersei. *She* would have been the perfect target for Arya: a political villain defeated by an assassin, just like a supernatural villain should be defeated by a magical character (*cough* Bran *cough*).
Maybe now they'll go full circle and have Jon or Bran kill Cersei. You know, to subvert expectations.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong (2015)
A solid game but inferior to Dragonfall
The biggest flaw of Hong Kong is not living up to the expectations set by Dragonfall. In itself, it's an enjoyable RPG with turn-based combat and a fun setting, a mix between cyberpunk and fantasy where gun-toting orcs, drone-controlling dwarves and elven shamans roam futuristic cities threatened by shady corporations and eldritch entities.
Presentation is appealing in both visuals and music. Writing is competent, with an intriguing main quest and five well-defined companions; three of them are mandatory and two optional... you really shouldn't pass on the latter, as they are the most interesting of the group. Character customization has been improved with a wide array of new skills and tools.
Sadly, combat encounters are not as engaging as those in Dragonfall. Several sidequests have a compelling premise but a perfunctory execution. Whether your are trying to blackmail a movie producer, kidnap a mobster or steal an artifact from a museum, it generally boils down to a few skill checks and a big final fight. To be fair, all sidequests do have some kind of non-obvious "moral" choice at the end, even if in-game consequences tend to be minimal.
I also have issues with how the Matrix - a virtual reality your hacker characters ("deckers") can access - has been redesigned; there is more emphasis on stealth but controls are sluggish, virtual maps too simplistic. Still, most Matrix bits are either fairly easy or skippable.
A last complaint about the conclusion, although I'll keep it relatively spoiler-free: to get the "good" ending, you have to perform a combination of tasks/quests/dialogues throughout the game. Some make sense, but one of them feels so arbitrary that I was quite irked when I found out about it and had to replay the last two missions to get the one ending which isn't a complete downer.
Overall, though, Hong Kong is an improvement over the first chapter of the series, Dead Man's Switch. It just isn't on par with the gem that was Dragonfall, at least in terms of gameplay.
City life has made you weak
The best episode of a great first season, The House in the Woods follows Hilda as she returns to her beloved wilderness but gets trapped with the grumpy Wood Man inside a mysterious house which can materialize anything they desire but prevents them from leaving.
This episode is notable for two reasons. First, it shows how the best plots in a series occur when the protagonist faces not a random obstacle but one that is crucial to his essence and characterization (in Hilda's case, redefining her concept of "home").
Second, it highlights how less is more in terms of using characters: funny supporting characters work better when used sparingly and appropriately, like the hilarious Wood Man here; he has four appearances in the whole season and is one of the most memorable things to come out of the series. If he had been thrown into every episode, he wouldn't have been as amusing.
Nice horror short
A cute stop-motion horror short (about six minutes) available on YouTube, homaging the Jurassic Park saga. Good job, the people behind it have talent. How incredibly sad that I actually cared more about the mute wooden mannequin here than about the characters played by Pratt and Howard in the last two movies...
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Classic with a phenomenal lead performance
Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) directs this fine adaptation of the play by Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), who also penned the script. The plot follows the conflict between Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII over the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn which led to the English Reformation.
Paul Scofield elevates the movie with one of the great performances of the Sixties, playing More with dignity, intelligence, humour and vulnerability. To appreciate how great Scofield is, compare him to Charlton Heston as More in the 1988 version. While Heston's performance isn't bad (just like the remake), it lacks the nuance and subtlety of Scofield's.
Also featuring Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, Leo McKern as Cromwell, Nigel Davenport as the Duke of Norfolk, a young John Hurt (in his first major role) as a social climber and a memorable cameo by Orson Welles as bitter, bleary-eyed Cardinal Wolsey.
These druids are crazy
As a huge Astérix fan, I believe this is a good follow-up to the hilarious Le Domaine Des Dieux by the same writing/directing team. Unlike the former cartoon, this is an original story not based on any existing Astérix comic book.
Characterization is on target, jokes amusing. Druid Getafix (Panoramix in the original) has his own day in the limelight and for the first time is arguably the main character. After an accident where he breaks a leg, Getafix starts worrying about getting old; the plot revolves around his attempts to find a successor to pass on the secret of the magic potion, much to the dismay of Astérix, while a rival druid tries to steal it.
Like in Le Domaine des Dieux, the ending goes a little overboard with a battle/action set-piece which could have been a few minutes shorter, but it's a minor issue. Overall very enjoyable.